Negative Experiences on Social Media Increase Depression Risk: Study

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

Lucy Alexander has been speaking out about the effects of online bullying. Lucy has tragic first-hand experience of the brutal phenomenon because earlier this year her son, Felix, 17, took his own life.

The bullying started when Lucy refused to allow Felix to play Call of Duty, a massively popular and hugely violent "first-person shooter" video game that, in its many versions, has sold more than 175 million copies over the past decade. At the time his mom told him he couldn't play the game, Felix was just 10 years old. From then, on the bullying got worse. And worse.

“It began with unkindness and social isolation and over the years, with the advent of social media, it became cruel and overwhelming," Lucy wrote in an open letter, published in the Worcester News (UK).

In the letter, Lucy describes how people who had never even met Felix were abusing him over social media.

Felix wouldn’t change schools because he said the issue was with social media and that would follow him everywhere. Despite receiving help from a psychotherapist, the situation became too much for Felix. He was pronounced dead after taking his life at 17, placing himself in front of a train in April 2016.

New research

In September 2016, researchers from Brown University reported that negative experiences on Facebook increased the risk of depressive symptoms. The study, published in the Journal of Mental Health and reported in ScienceDaily, has two unique qualities. First, this research examined the frequency, severity, and nature of social media interactions from 264 participants. Previous research typically only measured time spent online with social media, and associated that data with a measure of mental health.

The second unique quality is the fact that participants were all enrolled in the New England Family Study. A follow up to the National Collaborative Perinatal Project (NCPP), the New England study aimed to identify obstetric and genetic risk factors for neuropsychiatric and medical disease. In other words, researchers knew the exact mental health status of participants before the advent of Facebook in 2002, and were therefore able to track changes over time.

Negative Facebook experiences

Negative Facebook experiences affected 82 percent of the participants with 24 percent reporting moderate-to-severe levels of depressive symptoms using a standard measure of such symptoms.

Steve Buka, professor of epidemiology at Brown and study co-author, states in response to the study, "this is as close as you can get to answering the question: Do adverse social media experiences cause depression? … [I]t solves the chicken-and-egg dilemma of which comes first — adverse experiences on Facebook or depression and low self-esteem."

It seems only fitting that Lucy should have the final word here.

"Please take an interest in what your children do online," she wrote in her letter. "We don’t like to think that our children could be responsible for being cruel to another child, but I have been shocked by the ‘nice’ kids who were responsible for Felix’s anguish. On several occasions we removed all forms of social media from Felix as it was causing so much distress, but that just isolated him further. Our lives have been irrevocably damaged by the loss of our wonderful son; please don’t let it happen to any other family."

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